At the start of American Idol's season, my big concern was the judges. Paula Abdul left, and Simon Cowell announced his impending departure. In the meantime, last year's new judge, Kara DioGuardi, hadn't proved she belonged at the table, and incoming judge Ellen DeGeneres didn't have a musical background. I smelled disaster.
By the Hollywood round, however, I had determined that all was well. Ellen found a niche with her dithery wit, Kara upped her game, and Simon and Randy continued to be Simon and Randy.
But with an eye trained on the judges, I missed the true problem with season 9: the singers. It's hard to believe that the top 12 finalists represented the best America has to offer in 2010. Leaving aside the karaoke-bar embarrassments (Paige Miles, Tim Urban, Andrew Garcia), the handful of decent contenders have been just that: decent. No one has offered the thrills and chills of previous finds like Adam Lambert, Kelly Clarkson or Fantasia.
If the finale (Wednesday, 7 p.m.) proves to be enjoyable, it will be because of the judges, the special guests, the comedy bits that is, in spite of the Big Moment, not because of it. You know a season has let you down when the crowning of the new American Idol serves as a convenient bathroom break.
Saturday, 8 pm (SyFy)
In this TV movie, an earnest medieval prince (Luke Goss) returns to his kingdom after the Crusades to find it overrun by witches. As if that weren't bad enough, the witches all seem to be breathing out red talcum powder. The prince springs into action, clanging his sword and saying things earnest medieval heroes are supposed to say.
I was particularly struck by this comment: "Our only priority now is to defend the kingdom! We must prepare for anything, plausible or otherwise!"
It takes a wise prince to realize that, in Witchville, implausibility is a very real option.
Sunday, 8 pm (ABC)
The labyrinthine series ends this week, but before the finale ABC will struggle to explain the damn thing to a puzzled nation. On Saturday at 7 pm, the network airs the 2004 pilot. On Sunday at 6 pm, it airs an hour-long recap.
Unless the network airs a post-finale wrap-up at 10 pm, with explanatory maps and flow charts, I fear I'll end this experience the way I began it: Lost.
Monday, 7 pm (NBC)
Last year, I demanded that NBC renew Chuck, and it did. Then I urged the producers to create a kick-ass third season, and they did. I even asked you, the American people, to start watching the show in bigger numbers, and you did. Celebrate an exceptional series not to mention my awesome influence over TV affairs by checking out the season finale, in which the Ring closes in on Chuck.
Wisconsin Vietnam War Stories
Monday-Wednesday, 8 pm (PBS)
This Wisconsin Public Television documentary starts at a disadvantage. The Vietnam War has already been thoroughly documented, dramatized and analyzed. And the format for this three-part series risks monotony: a string of Wisconsin veterans telling their stories over archival images and distracting music.
But what veterans. And what stories. These articulate, perceptive, occasionally emotional men and women make the war feel real again, as opposed to a bit of ancient history stylized with a Doors soundtrack. And they sometimes offer a Wisconsin perspective you won't see in other Vietnam histories. One soldier describes his wound as only a Badger would: "I looked down and there was blood shooting out of my hand. It was just like a bubbler."
Brace yourself for a journey into hell with your friends and neighbors.
Monday, 8 pm (ABC)
I'm delighted that Ali Fedotowsky is the new Bachelorette, who'll choose her reality-series soul mate from a group of suitors. Fedotowsky is the levelheaded contestant who left in the middle of last season's Bachelor to return to her day job in advertising. To me, that was a refreshing move. The Bachelor usually presents us with ingratiating women willing to give up everything for a handsome stranger; in that context, Ali's choice of career over Prince Charming made a powerful statement.
I'll respect her even more if she leaves The Bachelorette midway through the season. Reality stars too good for their own shows I sense a hot new trend!
The Lazarus Effect
Monday, 8 pm (HBO)
This documentary chronicles the miraculous effects of antiretroviral drugs (ARVs) on the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Africa. The disease has killed 20 million Africans to date, and tens of millions more are infected with HIV. Few of them can afford the $10,000 a year needed for the ARVs that could save their lives, but global public health organizations have stepped up to provide the medicine at reduced cost. In The Lazarus Effect, we watch several people rise from the dead, including the sweet 11-year-old Bwalya, who says, "When I grow up I want to be a teacher."
Not "if I grow up." When.